Mark Pope has had a week to prepare for Saint Mary’s buzz saw on Saturday in Moraga.
Can he pull it off?
Cougars on the air
BYU (19-8, 7-5)
at Saint Mary’s (21-6, 9-3)
Saturday, 8 p.m. MST
University Credit Union Pavilion
Radio: BYU Radio/1160 AM
His Cougars (19-8) will attempt a sweep of Randy Bennett’s 20-6 Gaels, who were ranked No. 22 last week.
Can this BYU team, fresh off two straight wins on the road, gather the confidence to beat what is traditionally one of the best programs in the West Coast Conference?
If he does, it will be one of Pope’s best wins ever.
Before the last two wins, riding a four-game losing streak, his team had been one step ahead of a wood chipper.
The formula has been the same. Get a small to medium lead, lose it, fall behind big time, then make a run that mostly ends up short.
Before the injury, Traore was one of the bright spots this season for the Cougars. Fresh out of high school, his remarkable wingspan, anticipation on rebounds and blocked shots, and his strength in playing the center position at 6-foot-6 was amazing.
Traore ranks No. 3 in the WCC in rebounding (8.3) behind San Francisco’s Yauhen Massalski (9.7) and Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren (9.6), who might be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.
“Fouss is a big part of this team, for sure,” said teammate Seneca Knight. “Fouss is an amazing rebounder. He’s an amazing finisher in the post. We’re going to have to go through other players and find other opportunities to still be productive and get the job done. We can’t wait to have Fouss back, for sure.”
Pope won with Traore.
Now, he’s out with a muscle situation. Last summer Traore had a sore hamstring that kept him out almost a month in summer workouts.
Caleb Lohner, come on down.
Pope will now depend on a big dose of the 6-8 sophomore. He’s a big, strong workhorse who has struggled offensively this year. But he’s never given up, he’s adjusted to different roles, started and not started. The staff will also dabble in playing 6-9 freshman Atiki Ally Aki.
Knight will now need to play more of the power forward spot vacated by Lohner.
“I thought Caleb was off-the-charts defensively with his assignments. He made huge plays on closeouts at LMU,” said Pope. “Plays like that we were sorely missing over the weekend. He was really special. His decision-making was elite level on the offensive end also. He is such a massive, important piece of this team. He has led the charge in a ton of our wins.”
There’s no better time for Lohner to step up and shine than right now. He’s struggled with consistency this season and no doubt his confidence took a hit.
But the runway is clear, the opportunity door wide open. And he’s needed by his teammates to play big.
In a win over Pepperdine, Lohner hit 6 of 7 shots from the field and was 2 of 2 from 3-point land. He also had four rebounds.
Without Traore in the lineup, Lohner will need to score more than 14 points. He’ll need to get 8 to 10 rebounds and stay out of foul trouble.
The bad news is BYU, Pope and Lohner are not going up against the two worst teams in the WCC, LMU, and Pepperdine — games that allowed them to get back on the winning track.
BYU faces the No. 2 team in the league. The Gaels picked up a big win against San Francisco Thursday night to improve to 9-3 in WCC play. BYU is in the middle of the league standings at 7-5 after that snapping that four-game losing streak.
“Winning brings spirit and life back to the team,” Lohner told reporters this week. “It’s really tough to lose.”
Can a little confidence make the difference for Pope and company at Saint Mary’s?
It will take that and a whole lot more.
“We have to go into this game and just fight like we do,” said Lohner. “With all the noise we have out there we need to push that out of our minds and play for each other.
“This is an incredible opportunity for us and we are excited to play this game.”